See the moving picture


A Storied Spectacle


Albert Capellani, Pathé-Frères, France, 1907

Frames 1-2  Cendrillon is, of course, a féerie rendering of the well-known story of Cinderella. Capellani’s version opens in a studio interior of the house in which our heroine slaves away for her stepmother and stepsisters. Once all of the household excitement about the Prince’s ball has been dramatized (mostly a matter of standard comic business played out in a single extended tableau in the center space of the set), Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother appears (by means of superimposition). (1) is the result of a pan left, following which, with a virtually invisible cut masking the superimposition of projected imagery, Capellani produces the magical entry of the Fairy Godmother’s attendant pixies. Superimposition also accomplishes the magic in (2), in which Cinderella’s peasant garb is transformed into an exquisite ball gown. The fact that the figure of Cinderella is spinning around at the moment of transformation enhances the sense that the entry of the miraculous into the mundane is fluid and graceful, not an occasion for bringing reality to a standstill in order to appreciate a spectacle.

Frames 3-9 further indicate Capellani’s strategy of representing the emergence of the magical into the mundane as a “natural” phenomenon given the inherent character of the fairy-tale narrative: toned blue because it is the night of the Prince’s ball, all of these scenes are shot on exterior locations. As part of a longer sequence punctuated by studio-set interiors, each frame also illustrates Capellani’s strategy of depicting “reality” as a space that favors fluid movement. The long shot in (3), for instance, consists of an extended rightward panning shot that follows Cinderella’s carriage along a tree-lined road. (4) is a long shot of the ball—an enchanted space which Capellani locates on the palace grounds rather in an interior ballroom; another extended pan follows the Prince and Cinderella—first left to right and then in reverse—as they greet the royal guests.

(5) and (6) come from a single shot. The high-angle extreme long shot in (5) discovers Cinderella as she flees the ball after the stroke of midnight, running from the deep background into the foreground until she turns and exits the frame to our left; in (6), the Prince’s party quite logically appears in pursuit Cinderella on the same path, also moving from background to foreground and exiting the frame to our left. A cut to (7)—another high-angle extreme long shot—reveals that the fleeing Cinderella has reached a bridge, where the Prince and his retinue, though catching up to her, fail to recognize her in her peasant clothing.

At the end of (7), Cinderella runs out of the frame to our right, whereupon Capellani traces her flight as a series of smoothly executed and reasonably well-matched movements through adjacent spaces joined by direct cuts: from the bridge to the path before the door of her house (8), which she enters (9), emerging—in a reverse-angle shot—in the interior of the house (10), as a well-matched exit-entrance sequence shifts perspective from the location exterior to the studio interior.

Frames 11 and 12  In (11), Capellani’s variation on the device of the internally framed image performs both spectacle and narrative functions. As Cinderella sits weeping at the kitchen table, her Fairy Godmather causes the wall behind her to explode, revealing a distant view of the Prince’s emissaries searching for the owner of the glass slipper. The interpolated scene—a complex combination of stop action and the superimposition of projected images—is certainly intended as a spectacle tour de force, but its narrative function is equally ingenious: the superimposed dramatic action is presented as happening both at the same time and in a different space and will merge into the action taking place in the space occupied by the distraught heroine, whereby the Fairy Godmother’s design for a happy resolution to the narrative will fulfill its promise.

That resolution is celebrated in the apotheosis finale in (12). In this color-tinted scene, the Prince fails at first to recognize Cinderella (who’s back in her pre-Princess attire). Her Fairy Godmother, however, dissolves into the shot and inspires the Prince to lead Cinderella into a pirouette, and as she spins around—in an explicit echo of the transformation scene in (2)—she is once again decked out in her magic ball gown.

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